The haze is an 'externality,' a phenomenon ostensibly beyond the control of Singapore's government. A result of burning forests and peat, commonly attributed to 'slash and burn' farming techniques employed in nearby Indonesian islands. However, never during the last two decades has the haze affected behaviour as severely as during the last few days. Sure, the haze was bad a few times in the late 1990s but it probably did not reach 'hazardous' levels on the Pollutants Standards Index (PSI) measure. During the last few days, the PSI seems to have breached the 400 number a few times.
The haze places more than just the health of Singapore's greatest asset – its people – at stake. Its economic implications are significant.
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Absent and unhealthy workers affect productivity. Retail sales are affected by people staying indoors as much as possible. Tourism takes a hit as people cancel or shorten pleasure and business trips. For those brave individuals who visit Singapore anyway, they may not leave with happy memories and will most certainly not spend as much time in indulging in outdoors activity (e.g. Sentosa, Orchard Road, alfresco dining).
Despite being a problem with roots in Indonesia, Singapore has diplomatic options to help alleviate – if not completely redress – the annual haze dilemma. To be sure, Singapore must balance the 'carrot and stick' effectively to ensure the Republic's relations with Indonesia are not irrevocably damaged.
Diplomacy is a delicate art requiring the virtuous use of many different soft and hard levers in an optimal combination. Results are never guaranteed and unintended consequences may also arise from using any number of diplomatic tools.
Singaporeans are often told, Singapore is a small country but due to hard work and progress, the country punches above its weight. The present is as good a time as any to demonstrate Singapore's regional clout by pushing for a sustainable solution to an ongoing problem. To remain hostage year after year to the same problem is not an option.
Singapore's politicians and civil servants, including diplomats, are well paid and highly trained. Ordinary Singaporeans will be happy to see them earn their keep by continuing current efforts to address the crisis. Surely, Singapore's otherwise wise and masterful civil service scholars and policy makers can come up with lasting solutions to vexing questions such as the haze?